By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA - With golf courses like TimberStone, Greywalls and Sweetgrass already ranked among the best in Michigan, and Sage Run expected to join that list soon, Upper Peninsula golf is becoming increasingly high class.
Also contributing are some quality golfers past and present. Scott Hebert and Becky Iverson are already in the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, and Syd Wells is in the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame and a prime nominee for the Michigan golf hall.
Players like Mike Nagy, twin brothers Dan and Dave Ellis, Carley Saint-Onge and Avery Rochester have made an impact, and now high school products like Hunter Eichhorn, Bryce Douglas and others are making similar strides.
Eichhorn, a senior at Carney-Nadeau High School, was the Wisconsin Golf Association's junior player of the year in 2016, played in the national Junior Amateur and has a golf scholarship to Marquette University. Douglas, a senior at Gladstone High School, has a golf scholarship to University of Detroit Mercy.
Thursday they were joined in a threesome at the Escanaba Invitational at Escanaba Country Club by Escanaba High School senior John Kositzky, who has committed to play golf at Wisconsin Lutheran University, a Division III school in Milwaukee.
Heading the female ranks is Paxton Johnson, an Escanaba High School sophomore southpaw who has similar potential.
Wisconsin Lutheran coach Adam Volbrecht attended Thursday's six-school tournament and walked with Kositzky's college-bound trio.
"I was very impressed. I saw some really good golf," Volbrecht said, surprise obvious in his voice. "If you think it is good, it is way better than you think."
He was particularly impressed by Eichhorn, who went birdie-birdie-bogey-eagle on the last four holes of the front nine en route to a 4-under par medalist round of 67. "Hunter is as good a junior golfer as I've seen," he said, adding the overall performances were stronger than he saw in a Milwaukee area tourney the previous day.
He was amazed to see the level of golf on display since Upper Peninsula weather has not made it easy for golfers to hit the links this spring. "It is a big transition jumping right out of winter and going under par," he said. "I saw some very good golf without there being a really good reason for it (because of tough weather conditions Thursday and all spring)."
Volbrecht also liked the fact many of the players he saw are multiple-sport athletes. Eichhorn was an all-conference basketball marksman, Douglas is a former football player and Kositzky actually was attracted to Wisconsin Lutheran to play football before deciding on golf. "There are some benefits to being well-rounded," said the WLU coach.
Volbrecht also enjoyed seeing numerous fans watching the first medal-play event of the season, noting "the Upper Peninsula golf culture. Golf is important up here."
Eichhorn, a three-time U.P. Division 3 individual champion, was excited to play with Douglas and Kositzky. "It was a great challenge. I like playing in bigger meets because I know they will push me to play even better. With great competition you've got to lock in a little more," he said, indicating stiffer competition will help prepare him for the challenge of playing at Marquette, which just won the Big East Conference title and graduates only one senior.
Douglas, who beat Eichhorn in one meet last spring and was fourth in the Upper Peninsula Golf Association men's tournament last year, shot 71 on Thursday. "It was really fun competing with them today. It narrows my focus. You want to do better," he said.
"(Eichhorn) is the best player at our level. Of course you want to compare your game to his game." Douglas said. "It will give me an idea what it will be like to play college golf and will get me ready for what is to come."
Douglas plans to play in the UPGA again and will try to qualify for the Michigan Open, the Michigan Amateur and the United States Open.
Kositzky posted a 78 in the chilly, windy conditions and welcomed the chance to test his game against better players.
"Playing with guys like that, you want to try to keep up with them. I tried to stick to my game plan, but they influence you a little bit," he said. "It gives you that focus."
Escanaba High School coach Brian Robinette, himself a former state junior golf champion and Olivet College Hall of Fame golfer, was elated to see such a talented field of prep golfers.
"From the high school standpoint, golf is becoming cool again," he said, indicating a recent decline in girls golf has been a concern. "Getting kids comfortable on the course is a key. Our adult golf population needs to embrace the kids on the course."
Robinette said players like Nagy (Manistique), Saint Onge and Rochester (both graduates of Marquette) "have paved the way. They are high level, top-tier players."
He said having today's preps see what some of the recent standouts have achieved "gets the competitive nature going for these kids. There is really magnificent talent up here."
He also noted the impact of the Road to the LPGA's Symetra Tour visiting Sweetgrass the past six years as a huge bonus.
Robinette said players like Eichhorn and Douglas can use their length to make the transition to college golf. "(Douglas) will see some stud golfers, but his ceiling is pretty high."
He said Johnson, the reigning U.P. Division 1 girls champion, "has the drive to play beyond high school. She has her golf life mapped out. She can launch the ball with her driver, so now you're talking pars and birdies."
Robinette said South Dakota State University golf coach Casey VanDamme, a native of Perkins, also has been beneficial to U.P. golfers.
"It doesn't take much to find talent if you care to look," Robinette said of college coaches noticing the quality of players in the Upper Peninsula. "The U.P. is on a lot of people's radar."
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and 1984-2012, and as interim during the 2016-17 school year. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) A college-bound trio of Upper Peninsula high school golfers played in the top threesome at Escanaba Country Club on Thursday. They included, from left, John Kositzky of Escanaba, Bryce Douglas of Gladstone and Hunter Eichhorn of Carney-Nadeau. Eichhorn, headed to Marquette University, was medalist with a 4-under-par 67. (Middle) Escanaba High School sophomore Paxton Johnson prepares to hit an iron approach to the 17th green Thursday at Escanaba Country Club. She is the reigning Division 1 Upper Peninsula girls champion and a potential college prospect. (Below) Bryce Douglas of Gladstone places the ball on the 17th green Thursday at Escanaba Country Club. The University of Detroit recruit posted par 71 in the Escanaba Invitational. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)
Detroit Cass Tech boys basketball coach Steve Hall, Farmington Hills Mercy girls golf coach Vicky Kowalski and East Grand Rapids girls swimming & diving coach Butch Briggs and have been named a 2022-23 National Coach of the Year in their respective sports by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association.
They were selected by a committee including representatives from all eight NFHS sections – Michigan is part of Section 4 with Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The following brief bios include an excerpts from each honoree’s coaching philosophy, which nominees were asked to submit after being identified as candidates for the awards.
Steve Hall guided Detroit Cass Tech to its first MHSAA Finals championship last season as the Technicians capped a 28-1 run. He’s 160-30 in his eighth season directing Cass Tech, with his team 9-0 this winter, and he has a career high school record of 370-103 having also coached at Detroit Rogers (1996-97 through 2004-05) and Detroit Northwestern (2005-06 through 2007-08). He led Rogers to three straight Class D championships from 2003-05, led Northwestern to its first Detroit Public School League championship in 30 years and Cass Tech to its first in the PSL in 19 seasons. He also coached collegiately as an assistant at Duquesne University (2008-09 through 2011-12) and Youngstown State University (2011-12 through 2014-15) before taking over at Cass Tech for the 2015-16 season. He has received multiple state Coach of the Year awards during his tenures at Rogers and Cass Tech, and also serves the latter as athletic director and boys cross country coach.
“My coaching philosophy is ‘Learning Life Skills Through Basketball.’ I have encountered many youngsters that value basketball more than anything. Therefore, I use basketball as a carrot to dangle to help them acquire life skills and other necessities that can benefit them in their lives. Ultimately, when the ball stops bouncing they may be quality fathers, husbands, principals, CEOs, etc., and positive contributors to society. My motto is, “Be better today than yesterday and better tomorrow than today.” My athletic philosophy is scholarships and championships in that order! We love to win. But winning is not only on the scoreboard but also in life. Accountability, Reliability, Dependability and Responsibility. “Do what you are supposed to do, be where you are supposed to be, every play and every day.” God has blessed me with high morals, values and unmatched energy to leave my student athletes better than I found them.”
Vicky Kowalski completed her 46th season this fall coaching Farmington Hills Mercy’s girls golf team, and led the program to its second-straight Lower Peninsula Division 2 championship and fourth MHSAA Finals title overall. Her teams also have won seven Regional and 21 league championships and were 220-50 in matches entering the season. She has received several coaching awards over the years including statewide awards from the Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association (MIGCA) and Michigan High School Coaches Association (MHSCA). Kowalski also is in her 22nd season as Mercy’s girls bowling coach and has coached multiple subvarsity seasons of basketball and volleyball as well. She’s been inducted into Halls of Fame by both MIGCA and the Michigan High School Interscholastic Bowling Coaches Association (MHSIBCA).
“I have always believed in participation. On all the teams I have coached, everyone plays – no one sits the bench. All my athletes have their opportunities to grow in the sport. I have always preached dedication and sportsmanship. The athletes practice well to perform well. They encourage teammates as well as competitors. I enjoy interaction with other coaches. We share coaching techniques and ideas for improving team performance.”
Milton “Butch” Briggs has led the East Grand Rapids girls swimming & diving team to a record 26 MHSAA Finals team championships, the first in 1978 and including six straight from 1981-86 and the program’s current three-year title streak. His girls program also has celebrated 105 individual or relay Finals champions and clinched 33 league team titles. Briggs has received several coaching awards, including nationally for his sport (girls and boys combined) from the National High School Athletic Coaches Association (NHSACA) in 2000 and the NFHS Coaches Association for boys swimming & diving in 2011. He entered this past fall season with a dual meet record of 522-65-1 over his career, which has spanned 49 years total, and his boys teams have won 12 MHSAA Finals. Briggs also has served as an assistant track coach at multiple schools and as MISCA president, and is in the MHSCA Hall of Fame.
“My coaching philosophy has been, and continues to be, a work in progress. I have formed relationships with hundreds of amazing young people. They have taught me life lessons in real time and real situations. As a neophyte coach, the experience revolved around winning. We worked together as a team, supported each other in and out of the pool, and won often. Thankfully, I became aware of the value within each athlete. Today, I attempt to interact with each athlete at every team activity and follow their progress in non-swimming endeavors. In short, when I removed my ego from the team's expectations and outcomes, the entire atmosphere was much more enjoyable and productive. And we are still capable of being successful. The Lord has put me in the right place at the right time.”
Six more Michigan coaches earned honors in Section 4. Stefanie Kerska was honored in boys swimming & diving after leading Ann Arbor Pioneer to its third-straight Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals title under her leadership, and Asa Kelly was recognized in boys track & field after leading Benzie Central to the LPD3 Finals championship. Mt. Morris volleyball coach James Pender was honored after leading his team to the Division 2 Quarterfinals in 2022, when he also eclipsed 1,000 career coaching wins in the sport, and Traverse City St. Francis’ Julie Duffing was awarded in cross country after leading her program to the 2022 LPD3 Finals championship, the program’s second under her leadership. Haslett/Williamston girls lacrosse coach Chad Pastor was honored after leading his team to the Division 2 Semifinals last spring, and Hartland competitive cheer coach Candace Fahr was recognized after leading her team to the MHSAA Finals for the fourth time in her six seasons guiding the program.
The NFHS has been recognizing coaches through an awards program since 1982.